The Damselfly nymph is a popular pattern choice for stillwater fly fishermen and for good reason too; trout absolutely crush them. The nymphs are present year round and are a common menu item for scavenging trout on a daily basis. Damselflies have an incomplete life cycle consisting of; egg, larvae (nymph) and adult. As fly fishermen, 99.9% percent of the time we focus our energy on imitating and fishing the larval stage, the damselfly nymph.
The damselfly nymphs inhabit dense weed beds in both shallow and deep water ranging in depths most commonly between 3’ - 20’ ft. The nymphs themselves are predators and are always on the move in search of food. Their diet consists mainly of small aquatic insects such as chironomid larvae & pupa, mayfly nymphs, daphnia and even scuds. Due to their predator-like behavior, the damselfly nymph will put itself at risk to feeding trout as they swim around the aquatic vegetation in search of food. When they expose themselves to open water during their hunt, they make themselves an easy target for hungry trout. This is why the damselfly nymph makes a fantastic searching pattern to keep in your fly box.
The damselfly emergence typically begins in late spring/ early summer when the warmer weather sets in. The hatch continues until the temperature begins to drop towards the last few days of summer into early fall. When it comes time for the nymph to hatch into an adult, it will leave its home in the covered weed bed and swim instinctively into open water up towards the surface and then into the shoreline/ shallows. Generally, they’ll swim just a few feet beneath the surface and at this point, the nymph is most vulnerable to a cruising trout. Once they reach the shoreline, the nymphs will crawl out onto the land or vegetation such as; lily pads, cattails and bulrushes to hatch (we’ve even spotted a few nymphs crawling up anchor ropes). Now that the nymph is out of the water, the exoskeleton splits at the thorax and the adult will climb out and dry its wings before taking flight. This process can take either a few minutes or even a few hours. The damselfly adults will eventually mate, lay eggs and repeat the process.
Fly Fishing Techniques & Retrieves
There are two main ways to imitate a damselfly nymph on the water. The first technique is what we like to call the ‘scavenging method.' This is where the nymphs are foraging for their food among the weed beds. This can be done with either a floating line, intermediate sinking line or a full sink depending on the depth of water you're in. Deciding on a fly line is a simple decision but there isn’t a wrong answer. As a general rule of thumb; we will use a floating line in 5’ft of water or less. An intermediate sinking line in 6' to 15’ft of water and a full sink line (type 3-5) for water depths greater than 15’ft. But alterations can be made, for example, there’s nothing wrong with using a floating line with a long enough leader to reach the bottom in depths of 12’ft, it just takes longer to get into the zone. For the scavenging method, set yourself up in close proximity to the weed beds either on the shoal, drop off, or along the bottom in deeper water. With a leader approximately 9’ to 12’ft in length, work the fly around the weed bed by casting and retrieving. The retrieve should be slow, yet consistent. A hand-twist retrieve works perfectly with a few 2-3 second pauses allowing the fly to settle before you start retrieving again. Damselfly nymphs are erratic swimmers, making them fun to imitate.
The other technique to imitate damselfly nymphs would be to simulate an emergence. As mentioned in the entomology summary above, the emergence is when the damselfly nymphs swim towards the surface of the water and then make their way to the shoreline to hatch. The nymphs are going to travel within the top 1’ to 4’ft of the surface film. Grab your intermediate sinking line or floating line and position yourself as close to the shore as possible. Ideally you want to cast your line out over the drop-off zone, let the fly settle towards the bottom and begin retrieving back towards the shore. You’ll want the retrieve to be consistent at 1" to 3” inches per second, with the occasional 2-3 second pause allowing the fly to settle imitating a resting nymph. During this phase, you might have to adjust your depth at which your fly sinks because the trout will have a tendency to be picky. If you can manage to fish during a damselfly emergence, it’s one of the most incredible times to be on the water!
Fly Tying Tips
Damselfly nymphs are pretty straightforward to tie and there are many different variations to create on the fly tying bench. They can be found in a small variety of colours depending on their surrounding habitat including different shades of olive, green, tan, ginger and brown. The naturals are mainly found in a few different sizes ranging between ¾” to 1½”. We typically tie the nymphs on a size #12 hook but going a size larger (#10) or a size smaller (#14) will be just fine. Visually, the body of a damselfly nymph is long and slender with a 3-prong tail, 6 legs near the thorax and two distinct eyes that are separated on either side of its rather large head.
The nymphs' swimming motion can only be described as snake-like as they slither through the water column and around the weed beds. We tie our damselfly nymph tails with a few long marabou plumes, it’s the better choice for imitating that natural snake-ish movement. The damsel body stays slender, make sure to keep the material down to a minimum. You can also add a ribbed wire on the body for durability. Hackle, dubbing or marabou is commonly tied around the thorax area to imitate legs, giving the fly added movement in the water. For many of our unweighted damselfly nymph patterns, we will tie in mini black mono eyes to mimic the look of the naturals' eyes and give a bit of character to the fly. Lastly, as the nymphs mature they develop a wing case on their back. To imitate this feature, we tie in a small strip of scud back-- the fish seem to enjoy it as it’s always the first piece of material to fall off after many hook-ups on the water! As mentioned above, there are many different variations of the damselfly nymph to imitate, so have fun with it and have a few different selections at the ready. FISH ON!
As an added bonus, we have included a fly tying video from Sport Fishing On The Fly. Watch as Don Freschi spins up one of his classic damselfly nymph patterns for stillwater fly fishing. For more great videos, check out SFOTF’s YouTube channel and catch full episodes of their show. We hope you enjoy.